Something's cooking in 'The Restaurant' on TV3
With the ovens hot, the pots bubbling, and the cameras rolling, 'The Restaurant' is back in business, says Ian Morris
As the sun fell below the horizon, the diners began to gather at the Wineport Lodge Hotel in Glasson, Co. Westmeath for the revival of the hit Irish series, The Restaurant.
Lucky enough to be among them, I arrived on to the red carpet to a warm greeting from the doormen before making my way past the exterior lights, cameras and action, to the interior lobby where the bright smiles of enthusiastic bar staff awaited me. At the ready for the arriving guests, who were all decked out in their most stylish gear, were carafes of mystery red and white wines, which we were all encouraged to try and identify as we indulged. My expertise, unfortunately, goes about as far as knowing that I like red wine better than white; though I got the feeling that most of those around me were in a similar boat, despite the swirling of glasses and noses hanging over rims, not to mention the vigorous discussions of palates, clarity and the fine 'legs' that were observed by one particularly zealous wannabe sommelier.
The Restaurant, which had a stellar seven-series run before finishing up on RTE, is finally back, courtesy of TV3 and the show's new sponsor, Aldi, who will be providing the vast majority of the produce used. Returning to the judges' table are top Irish food critics Paolo Tullio and Tom Doorley, prepared once more to serve the celebrity chefs a slice of reality as regards their culinary competence. As before, Tom and Paolo will be joined each week by a celebrity guest critic and, on my evening at The Restaurant, the celebrity guest was none other than Lucinda O'Sullivan, the long-standing food critic of the Sunday Independent, who, as the most widely read Irish food critic, is known far and wide for her forthright, honest reviews.
On any other restaurant outing, an hour-and-a-half delay while being left standing in the lobby might be cause for ruffled feathers. However, as the other diners and I waited patiently, each added minute brought thoughts of reality TV drama and kitchen cock-ups to the fore of our imaginations, each of us relishing thoughts of burned beef and fallen souffles. Finally, John Healy, maitre d' and fan favourite of The Restaurant, arrived to greet the diners and, after a short, charming welcome, we were ushered to our tables.
The restaurant itself had been decked out with white faux-fur skins, the tables had centrepieces surrounded by cute little wooden 'log' decorations and hanging from the walls were sets of mounted antlers. There was a very modern twist about it, but it felt a little bit like having dinner at Anna Wintour's hunting lodge.
As a starter, I chose what had been described as a broth, but which was more like an extremely chunky soup or even a stew. Having been instructed by our maitre d', just 20 minutes earlier, that we could not leave our tables during the dinner, so as not to effect continuity in the filming, naturally my bladder began to rebel and for the next hour and half, my legs began to do an increasingly frantic dance beneath the table as the cameras kept me in limbo. When our main courses were served, I felt I had drawn the short straw. There had been the choice of a selection of meats, which felt a bit like the old carvery as maitre d'. Healy made his way around the room, a spit full of meat in hand, slicing and dicing at various tables. My haddock and prawn dish however, turned out not only to be totally free of prawns, something I heard several other diners discussing later, but also it tasted simply awful. It was a dish filled with huge cubes of haddock drowning in a pool of creamy sauce. I tried one piece and knew immediately that I was ready for dessert, which was a choice of a fruit tart or a chocolate bread pudding. Since I love both chocolate and bread pudding, this seemed like a no-brainer. How can you mess up bread pudding? Well, they found a way. What arrived to our table looked great until you began to dig into it with a spoon. It was like a bread-ish chocolatey slime, which again fell under my rule of one bite only. With a break in filming, myself and half of the other diners made a beeline for the restrooms, which had felt like a distant oasis. Refreshed, we returned to our seats for the big reveal of our celebrity chef - who will remain nameless - as well as the verdicts of the judges. Paolo took a best dish and worst dish approach, not being overly harsh. It was bit like a compliment sandwich, as he carefully placed his criticisms between thin slices of praise. Tom took a more direct tack and spoke at some length about the problems with the meal. Lucinda took a lighter, more humorous approach adding some lift to an atmosphere that was about ready to hit the floor, reminding the celeb chef that "you can't be great at everything". Perhaps the funniest moment of the evening was when the judges' final score of just two points was accidently revealed too early, forcing them to reseal it and awkwardly film the section again, as our none-too-pleased celebrity chef had to force a smile before being lambasted for a second time.
After dinner, the diners gathered around and eagerly discussed the evening, most relishing in how badly the meal had gone while reliving the critics' barbs.
Though I left the restaurant that evening looking forward to having dinner when I got home, I really enjoyed the experience immensely. Being there was even more fun than watching it happen on TV, and I can't wait to see all of the behind-the-scenes kitchen stuff when the show airs. The Restaurant will be returning to screens this January on TV3 with all of the same flavour, fun and drama that we've felt the absence of these past few years. Don't miss it!